David Cale and Lisa Emery in Mouth to Mouth
(© Monique Carboni)
David Cale and Lisa Emery in Mouth to Mouth
(© Monique Carboni)
Guilt and mourning intertwine in Kevin Elyot's unsettling new play, Mouth to Mouth, now being presented by The New Group at Theater Row. In the opening scene, grief almost palpably hangs in the air as Frank (David Cale), a gay male writer, talks to his friend Laura (Lisa Emery), who smokes and says nothing. The following scene makes a small jump back in time, as the HIV-positive Frank meets with his doctor and friend Gompertz (Andrew Polk). There's something on Frank's mind, a guilt that he wants to unload, but the play reveals its mysteries slowly, and we don't find out what that is until the play goes even further back in time.

It's a year prior, when Frank is a guest at Laura's home, at a time when she and husband Dennis (Richard Topol) are welcoming the return of their 15-year-old son Phillip (Christopher Abbot) from a trip abroad, and also hosting Dennis' brother Roger (Darren Goldstein) and his wife Cornelia (Elizabeth Jasicki). Over the course of that fateful night, tempers flare, secrets are divulged, and something tragic occurs that has long-lasting repercussions. Frank is not the only one who has cause to feel guilt, but he does play a crucial role in the evening's unfortunate ending. Director Mark Brokaw maximizes the tension and suspense through tautly paced scenes that actively use pauses and silences to establish the proper tone.

Cale initially gains audience sympathy with his awkward yet likable demeanor. Some of the other characters don't really seem to listen to him or take him seriously, and his body language practically reeks of apology. And yet, when Frank does exert his force of will, playing on another character's feelings of sympathy, you practically want to go up on stage and slap him for being so manipulative. Emery expertly handles the shift from her more fluid and easygoing persona of a year ago to the halting speech patterns that her present-day self is able to manage. The fresh-faced Abbot has a wonderful energy, and comports himself with an outward show of confidence that masks the character's internal confusion. The remaining cast members also do good work, although Polk pushes a little too hard during his supposed crying jags.

Riccardo Hernandez's set design utilizes freestanding naturalistic pieces of furniture to suggest location while simultaneously seeming somewhat unmoored from reality. Mark McCullough's excellent lighting emphasizes mood, particularly in the opening scene. David van Tieghem's original music and sound design likewise help give the piece its emotional tenor.

Mouth to Mouth stirs up a number of conflicting feelings, but ends abruptly without resolving it's main conflicts. This is done on purpose, but may still frustrate some viewers. It also introduces one too many plot twists once Roger unfolds a revelation that pushes the action a little too far into melodrama. Still, the affecting work lingers with you, just as many of its characters are haunted (perhaps even literally) by what happened to bring them to the state in which they both begin and end the play.